After Simone Biles, how does rest of US gymnastics puzzle fit together?

FORT WORTH, Texas — For most sports, determining who makes an Olympic team is easy.

Gymnastics is not one of those sports.

Unlike, say, swimming or track and field, where the top two or three to the finish line are your Olympic team, choosing gymnasts by rank order doesn’t always make sense. That’s because of the unforgiving nature of the team finals, where three gymnasts compete on each event and all three scores count.

Countries need a five-person team that can produce the highest possible total score in team finals – and that doesn’t always come from the gymnasts who finished first through fifth. It could mean bringing someone who is really, really good on one or two events rather than the person who finished fifth. Or taking the person who finished sixth in the all-around because they can contribute on events that the person who finished fifth, or even fourth, can’t.

The Americans went in rank order for the Tokyo Olympics, where they were silver medalists behind Russia. They brought specialists in Rio (Madison Kocian, uneven bars) and London (McKayla Maroney, vault), where they won gold.  

Think of it like a jigsaw puzzle, and it’s up to the selection committee to decide how best the pieces fit.

“Team is our first priority, putting up the strongest team that we can. And three-up, three-count, we take that into account, of course, because that’s what team finals is,” Chellsie Memmel, the technical lead for the U.S. women’s program, said Wednesday.

“Then after that it’s all-around and event medal potential. But team, for us, is always the biggest priority.”

With the U.S. championships this weekend, let’s dig in a little further on how this jigsaw puzzle might come together.

The U.S. women have the benefit of having Simone Biles, who is the very definition of an all-around gymnast. She’s good – and consistent – on every event, and the Americans know they can count on her to deliver a high score on each one of them.

Biles is the heavy favorite to win her ninth U.S. title this weekend, extending her own record, and grab the one automatic spot by winning the Olympic trials next month, too. But then who? The Americans will need to fill the remaining four spots on the Paris team with an eye on that three-up, three-count format.

With Biles figuring to compete on all four events in the team final in Paris, as she did at last year’s world championships, the Americans need to select four gymnasts who can, collectively, deliver two more big scores on the remaining four events. And be counted on to do so consistently.

Shilese Jones, an all-around medalist at the last two world championships, puts up a monster score on uneven bars and big scores on each of the other three events.

That leaves three gymnasts who will need to combine to cover that last spot on each of the four events. Jade Carey was the gold medalist on floor exercise in Tokyo and appears to have upgraded her routine since the U.S. Classic two weeks ago. Skye Blakely showed off an upgraded vault during training Wednesday. Jordan Chiles can put up a big number on uneven bars. Kaliya Lincoln is dazzling on floor exercise.

The most intriguing gymnast is Suni Lee, the reigning Olympic all-around champion. When the women begin competition at nationals Friday night, it will be the first time Lee has done the all-around in more than a year, since a kidney ailment forced her to cut her final season at Auburn short.

“Right now the pacing is try to keep her healthy, add one thing at a time and live to go to the next day,” said Jess Graba, Lee’s longtime coach.

“Physically, she’s fine. And she can do pretty much everything,” he added. “But that doesn’t mean your mind knows it. So we have to take care to make sure we don’t push her past what her mental capabilities are right now.”

Lee had the top score on balance beam at Classic and is one of the best in the world on uneven bars, though she won’t do her full difficulty at nationals. If Lee is healthy, her scores on those two events alone should be enough to earn her a spot on the team.

But Graba said they want to make a stronger case than that. Lee has upgraded her vault for nationals, and her floor routine should be more polished.

“Realistically, our goal is top five in the all-around and top three on bars and beam. And hold serve on the other two events and show that we can be there within a tenth or two of everybody else,” Graba said. “That’s the goal right now.”

There are now less than two months until the Paris Olympics begin. It’s time to start putting the jigsaw pieces together.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

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